It's that time of the year when we honor Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the twentieth century. While he appreciated the sentiment, Robinson often recalled he was not the only black pioneer in sports, and he frequently paid tribute to his predecessor and friend -- boxing champ Joe Louis.
Robinson said in 1954:
I certainly feel that the path for me and others to the big leagues was made easier by the performance and conduct of Joe Louis both in and out of the ring. All of us should give Joe a pat on the back for creating a favorable atmosphere.
Sports enthusiasts at the time would have understood that Robinson was thanking "the Brown Bomber" for not acting like the first black heavyweight boxing champ -- the ever-defiant Jack Johnson. A flamboyant character, Jackson flaunted his wealth, dated and married white women, and made no apologies along the way.
Aghast and afraid, white America recruited the "Great White Hope" to pummel Jackson back into his place. It was a truly horrible moment in U.S. sports history. But, to be fair, many black fans also felt Johnson did them no favors in expediting the racial integration of sports.
Joe Louis was no Jack Johnson.
While Louis's exploits inside the boxing ring remain the stuff of legend -- his 1938 knockout of Max Schmeling struck a blow for American freedom over Aryan fascism -- his behavior out of the ring assured him a place of honor in white America. "I kept my nose clean, and I acted like a gentleman, like an American," Louis later recalled, adding that his public behavior "made some whites begin to look at colored people different."
That happened by design. Louis's managers had drawn up certain anti-Jackson rules for him -- never be photographed with a white woman, never gloat over an opponent, and never act with abandon in public. The rules made Louis appear as "Bible-reading, mother-loving, God-fearing ... and not... too black," as historian Jeffrey Sammons has put it.
Louis endeared himself to the public all the more when he donated boxing proceeds to the armed services and volunteered for the U.S. Army in World War II.
As a young man, Jackie Robinson looked up to this new black sports model -- an outstanding and patriotic citizen who also beat whites to a pulp -- and was thrilled when Louis was stationed with him at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Although the two men were so different -- Jackie was educated, frugal, and a one-woman man, and Joe was none of that -- they struck up an easy friendship that endured for decades.
Robinson certainly appreciated his new friend's generosity -- the champ even called a Washington contact to help black soldiers like Jackie receive officer's training -- but he was most impressed by Louis's intelligence, modesty and humility.
So was Branch Rickey, and Robinson long claimed that Louis's example helped the Brooklyn Dodgers manager envision the possibility of the first black in Major League Baseball. "I'm sure if it wasn't for Joe Louis the color line in baseball would not have been broken for another 10 years," Robinson argued.
Rickey, no doubt, believed his "great experiment" required a player who seemed a lot like Louis -- religious, patriotic and tough enough not to lash out -- and he felt Robinson embodied those qualities. And, indeed, Robinson did exactly that as he donned the Dodgers cap on April 15, 1947.
But Jackie Robinson proved to be no Joe Louis.
Robinson did not replicate Jack Johnson -- Jackie had little tolerance for flamboyance -- but he did grow to speak his mind, on and off the baseball diamond, about everything from racist baseball managers to U.S. presidents who blocked civil rights to Southern thugs who burned down black churches. Like Jackson, Robinson got in white America's face.
Joe Louis looked on with admiration. "Jackie is my hero," he stated in 1970:
He don't bite his tongue for nothing. I just don't have the guts, you might call it, to say what he says. And don't talk as good either, that's for sure. But he talks the way he feels. He calls a spade a spade.
Louis was right. When Robinson came into his own -- freed from Rickey's initial demand that he "turn the other cheek" -- he adamantly refused to slouch or stay silent or skulk away when white America failed to be the land of the free.
Emancipated, Robinson roared in the face of racial injustice. But as he did so he made sure to tip his hat to the Brown Bomber who, in his own quiet way, had inspired countless blacks to straighten their backs in that awful era of Jim Crow.
Robinson was right, too. Because of the quiet patriotism of Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson could at last stand tall and demand that America let his people go -- all the while slugging a white ball and stealing home from its white protectors.